Globalist Bookshelf

Asian Drama

How can Asia’s giants — China, India and Japan — protect their interests as competition increases in East Asia?

Order "Rivals" here.

Takeaways


  • To have three local great powers at the same time may be unprecedented for Asia, but it is not unprecedented for the world.
  • Imagine that you were a senior defense strategist or planning official in India, China or Japan. What would you do?
  • China, India and Japan are grinding up against one another because their national interests are now overlapping — and in part competing.
  • Today's Asian drama is an inquiry into the prosperity of nations — and into what happens when several big neighboring countries become prosperous at the same time.

The “Asian Drama” that is the title of Gunnar Myrdal’s famous book of 1968 was, as his subtitle put it, “An Inquiry into the Poverty of Nations”. That Swedish economist’s drama was about overpopulation, poverty and the danger of what we now call “failed states.”

Today’s Asian drama is an inquiry into the prosperity of nations — and into what happens when several big neighboring countries become prosperous at the same time.

Today’s Asian drama is a much more upbeat and inspiring story than the one that preoccupied Myrdal, for this drama is lifting hundreds of millions — eventually billions — of people out of the squalor in which they and their forebears have lived for centuries.

It is knitting Asia together into a single, vibrant market for goods, services and capital, one that stretches all the way from Tokyo to Tehran.

If that process of integration and economic growth continues, as it should, it will form the single biggest and most beneficial economic development in this 21st century — providing dynamism, trade, technological innovation and growth that will help us all.

In the second half of the 20th century, the world’s most advanced country and biggest economy, the United States, benefited hugely from the growth and development of both Western Europe and Japan.

Now, in these early decades of the 21st century, the rich countries can expect to enjoy a similar boost from the growth and extra trade that will be provided by Asia.

As well as knitting them together, however, this drama is also causing friction between Asian powers that had previously kept a strict economic and political separation from one another.

China, India and Japan are grinding up against one another because their national interests are now overlapping — and in part competing — because each is suspicious of the others’ motives and intentions, and because all three hope to get their own way both in Asia and more widely.

To have three local great powers all at the same time may be unprecedented for Asia, but it is not unprecedented for the world. There was a similar situation in Europe during the 19th century, when Britain, France, Russia, Austria and, until German unification, Prussia existed in an uneasy balance.

Whether you consider Europe’s 19th century experience with balance-of-power politics as a good or bad omen for Asia depends on how long a sweep of history you consider. And it depends on what you think are the most crucial differences between modern times and the world of 150 years ago.

If you take a long sweep, then the precedent is bad, since Europe’s power balance ended in two devastating world wars in the 20th century.
Today, the barriers against the use of war as a tool of national policy are far higher.

Nevertheless, Asia is piled high with historical bitterness, unresolved territorial disputes, potential flash points and strategic competition that could readily ignite even during the next decade. There is cooperation aplenty, too.

But imagine that you were a senior defense strategist or planning official in India, China or Japan. You know that your government is professing friendship to all its neighbors, pursuing “smile diplomacy” all around.

You also know that your country’s economic interests are spreading and deepening, and so are your neighbors’, and that your neighbors are likely to get stronger in the future. What would you do?

The answer is that, while acknowledging that your fellow great powers’ intentions may prove to be entirely honorable and amicable, you would propose that your country should build up its military and technological capabilities. And you would suggest to strengthen its military and diplomatic alliances, as a form of insurance policy against the possibility that times change and that the other great powers’ intentions turn hostile.

With an eye on the far future, you would propose that your country should have a space program, taking in rockets, satellite launches and, for prestige purposes, moon landings.

With an eye on the medium term, you would propose a strengthening of your navy — and you would seek to invest in the development of an indigenous aircraft-manufacturing industry in case supplies of imported aircraft and components become harder to obtain.

Meanwhile, for the short term, you would propose that your country order more of the most advanced aircraft that your foreign suppliers are willing to sell and that you should keep on improving your offensive and defensive capabilities with and against short- and long-range missiles.

That is what China and India are both doing. It would be too strong to say that they are conducting an arms race, but what they are doing could reasonably be described as a strategic-insurance-policy race.

Editor’s Note: This feature is adapted from “Rivals” by Bill Emmott. Copyright 2008 Bill Emmott. Reprinted with permission from the publisher and author.

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